The Myth of the Successful Startup is Masculine at its Core and Blocks the Way for Female Entrepreneurship: Why We Need a New Narrative

Many stories tell you that to start a successful business, you have to risk it all. Being an untrue thesis and a philosophy that many women simply can’t relate to, the masculine myth of the entrepreneur essentially discourages women from ever pursuing an entrepreneurial dream. I say it’s time we changed the narrative.

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Katrine Lee Larsen | Image: Copenhagen Cartel

Words by Katrine Lee Larsen
CEO and Founder of Copenhagen Cartel

I think it’s safe to say that there has never been a more opportune moment to create a business. Entrepreneurs are considered the rock stars of our time and investors; consumers and other businesses are on the lockout for the next big idea.

Men are happily stepping up the table, opening one (successful) business after another.

With women it’s a different story. You can almost say that there is a reason we’re called “female entrepreneurs” and not just entrepreneurs. It’s because we are so rare. Women hold back.

Why?

The two biggest holdbacks: Money and lack of belief

It’s not that women don’t have great ideas. In fact, several surveys show that women tend to choose their calling in life based on a sense of purpose. That purpose usually has a circular perspective in terms of making a difference, helping others, fair working conditions etc. while also making money. This also shows in how we do business when we create our own.

A lack in ability to build and run a business is also not the reason. I participated in this season of the Danish version of the investor programme The Dragons Den. This year I was joined by many talented female entrepreneurs. Better yet, our ideas, strategies, results and negotiation skills were the talk of the season. Women know our shit.

So what is it?

copenhagen cartel | Entrepreneurship | female entrepreneurship

The Danish Chamber of Commerce asked that same question. “I need a steady income” and “I don’t have the skill set needed to become an entrepreneur” were some of the primary answers.

This might seem like obstacles that can be easily tackled, but in Denmark, where I am from, the survey done by the Danish Chamber of Commerce showed that only 4,2% of new entrepreneurs are women.

The average number for female entrepreneurs in the OECD is only double that amount.

The problem is deeper and I believe it is rooted in the myth of the entrepreneur.

The myth of the entrepreneur

We’ve all heard the stories. It’s usually about a guy, who gets a genius idea for a new business. So he risks it all – job, home, money and family – to go after his dream.

Cut to the montage of the long hours of hard work in his parents garage, the dramatic ups and downs, the “fake it ‘till you make it”-situations and the times the entrepreneur almost quit. Maybe he even balances on the brink of bankruptcy, only to be saved by a chance investment that saves his startup in the nick of time. The business becomes a huge success and changes society as we know it. In the end the risk paid off. 

It is names such as Apple, Spotify, Tesla and Uber that come to mind when we hear these stories. With good reason, they are incredible business that came about by equally incredible achievements.

Businesses like these are called unicorns for a reason. But as the name suggest, startup stories like these are as rare as the imaginary animal they are named after. Still they have become the almost unachievable ideal we turn to when dreaming of starting our own business.

It’s like saying if you can’t be Tesla, why bother?

That’s a huge problem, because the sugarcoated and fairytale-like origin stories leave little room for all the other ways you can become an entrepreneur.

I should know. I did it somewhat differently.

You don’t have to risk it all – in fact, I encourage you not to

I think it’s time I introduced myself. My name is Katrine Lee Larsen and I am the founder of the company Copenhagen Cartel.

We create beautiful swimwear out of recycled ocean-plastic – mainly the dangerous ghost nets that float around the oceans carried by the currents killing thousands of marine animals in their path.   

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I got the idea after I spent a year in Bali, where I discovered the devastating effect plastic pollution has on our oceans firsthand, and I decided I had to do my part in trying to change the situation.

Without any knowledge of ocean plastic, pollution and recycling and zero skills in garment production I created a successful company where everything – from the bikinis to the pricetag and the bag they are shipped in are recycled or recyclable. Where every single person working on the products are paid fairly, and we get to pay it forward by donating a portion of our proceeds to charity.

In just a few years, I built Copenhagen Cartel from the ground up. And I kept my full time job while doing it, because like most other women one of my main concerns was losing my steady income.

Having a salary check into my account every month also gave me enough financial leverage that I could scale the business on my own terms. I even had the luxury of being able to say no to potential investors that didn’t match my values and vision, because I had financial security.

I’ve been asked many times – and to be honest mostly by men – why I didn’t go “all in”. The thing is, I did go all in. It was incredibly hard work, and for close to two years I didn’t do much of anything else than think, plan and work on my startup while taking care of business at my full-time job in another startup.

Your femininity is a strength

The startup world is dominated by a masculine mindset, not only in terms of money being the ultimate goal for many, but also in how you should act, think and behave.

As a woman I’ve been told to push my feelings aside when talking to investors or hire new people. That feelings and emotions were a sign of weakness and unprofessional.

But, when you’re working with something you are truly passionate about, and that you believe in with all you being, how can you not show your emotions? The choices I make for my business have a deep impact on me, my colleagues, my partners, as they should. Otherwise, what’s the point of running a business?

I am an emotional person, and I show my feelings. To shut that part of my personality down in order to run a business makes no sense to me. Also, I learned that Copenhagen Cartel is a solid idea and brand, but in the end the investors put their trust in me, because they connect with me as a person – emotions and all.

In the end, I managed to create a business where purpose, planet and people come before profit. I never had to compromise my vision because I took my time and made sure my basic needs of financial security was met. And those emotions they tell you to hide? They are who I am, and those emotions and that heartfelt purpose were the reason I got an investment in The Dragon’s Den.

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Image: Copenhagen Cartel

That investment made it possible for me to quit my full time job and dedicate all my time to Copenhagen Cartel.

I might not be the next Steve Jobs, but then again, that was never my goal. The idea that I had to build my business in a certain way – to go “all in” as they say – for my business to be a success, never sat right with me.

I believe it’s the same for many other women.

We need to flip the script and write a new tale of how you can become an entrepreneur.

By sharing my own story I hope to set an example and inspire you to dare to take that first step.

Trust me when I say, when it comes to starting a business you don’t have to take the plunge. You can test the waters before you dive in.

copenhagen cartel | Entrepreneurship | female entrepreneurship

Katrine Lee Larsen is the CEO and Founder of Copenhagen Cartel, a swimwear and apparel brand that creates beautiful products from upcycling ocean plastic. Katrine takes the lead on everything from the development of new materials and products, to updating the website. She’s also in charge of all sales and marketing. Together with her amazing team, she also continues to develop the company’s strategy.

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